Wild Rumpus, which is marking its 25th anniversary in September, has yet another cause for celebration: the Minneapolis bookstore is PW’s Bookstore of the Year. It is the first children’s bookstore to win the award since PW launched the program almost a quarter-century ago. It is also the first bookstore of the year to have a municipal pet store license, undergo animal control inspections, and have an employee dedicated to animal care.
PW’s 2015 Rep of the Year, Jenny Sheridan of HarperCollins, nominated Wild Rumpus, describing it as a “unique, charming, and magical place that specializes in children’s books” and is “one of the best in the nation,” a destination in its community and a favorite stop for authors on tour. Authors are even more effusive in praising Wild Rumpus. Kate DiCamillo describes a visit to Wild Rumpus as “like walking into a story” and entering “a world of animals and books and possibilities.” Soman Chainani calls Wild Rumpus his favorite bookstore, declaring, “It’s an entire universe: once you go in, you feel like you are walking through a portal into Narnia.”
It’s not surprising that visitors would compare Wild Rumpus to a storybook come to life: its layout was inspired by Anne Mazer’s Salamander Room, a tale about a boy whose bedroom gradually transforms into the outdoors. As one enters the 2,000-square-foot retail space—either through the standard-sized door or a child-sized purple door—there are shelves of books and table displays, much like any other bookstore. After one passes the sales counter in the solar-powered space, however, the plaster on the 18-foot ceiling splits open to reveal a mural that resembles a body of water (or, some say, the sky), complete with a birchbark canoe. Plants creep up the brick back wall and along the large windows.
“The idea is that books open up the world,” says Collette Morgan, the store’s cofounder and head buyer.
Let the Wild Rumpus Start
A menagerie of more than a dozen animals plus fish in an aquarium live in the store. Three cats and a chicken roam about freely. A tarantula lives in an enclosure near the cash register. More small animals—a ferret, cockatiel, doves, chinchillas—dwell inside enclosures set against the back and side walls, as well as along the exterior of the “Haunted Shed,” a small shed in the back area housing the store’s inventory of children’s mysteries and thrillers and a couple of caged rats.
The inclusion of live animals in Wild Rumpus’s business model is as serendipitous as the store’s existence itself. After Morgan decided in 1989 that she wanted to open a bookstore, she was advised to work at one first. So she applied for a job at Minneapolis’s famed Odegard’s Books. “I fancied curating the poli sci section,” she recalls, but Dan [Odegard] put me in charge of the children’s section.” When Odegard’s went out of business in January 1992, Morgan and her then-husband, Tom Braun, bought up its children’s inventory and renovated a 1900s building in the upscale Linden Hills neighborhood. They opened Wild Rumpus that fall, with five part-time employees and a few in-house animals. “I’d read all the horror stories about starting a small business and having to work 80 hours a week,” Morgan recalls. “I’m the kind of person who likes to be around animals. If I was going to work that hard, I wanted some animals around.”
Morgan remembers that, despite competition from chains, big box stores, and other indies in the vibrant Twin Cities book market, the store broke even its first year and started making a profit within three. While declining to disclose sales figures, she notes, “When Avin [Domnitz, the former CEO of the ABA] was teaching the 2% solution, I was always at 12% [profit margin] or above. It’s gone up incrementally each year.”
In 2015, Wild Rumpus inaugurated a profit-sharing program for its 18 employees: any employee who has worked at the store for more than one year and has logged a minimum of 600 hours is eligible. The store also takes a cooperative managerial approach, with Morgan and four longtime employees making up the Managerial Operations Deployment [MOD] Squad, which oversees daily operations and long-range planning.
Even though it’s a weekday morning, the store is bursting with life when PW visits. Toddlers wander around with parents in tow; bookseller Kristen Kavic holds out the chicken so that a child can touch him; a parent sits in an overstuffed armchair reading a picture book to her daughter; and a dozen elementary school–aged children on a field trip sit cross-legged on the floor while bookseller Ellen Ourada instructs them on store etiquette. Before giving the children a tour, Ourada tells the story of “Glenn the Tree Trimmer,” whose papier-mâché legs (from the knees down) can be seen disappearing into the ceiling above the group. “Was that a real story or a make-believe story?” she asks. “It’s all about reading books. Don’t believe everything you’re told. Think for yourself.”
Wild Rumpus makes the most of its space limitations with cautious buying and an emphasis on quality. The store’s three buyers typically order directly from publishers and distributors, and re-stock when needed. “I figure out what’s the best of the best,” Morgan says of selecting the store’s stock. “And I know in my head how many titles will fit into [each] section.”
There are approximately 36,000 books in stock, from board books to young adult reads, plus sidelines and a small selection of adult trade titles, because, Morgan points out, “most children don’t come in unattended and YA readers read sophisticated material.”
For the past year or so, as part of the store’s commitment to diversity, it has pumped up its selection of international titles. Besides English, books are available in 20 languages including Spanish, French, Russian, and Hmong. The store also carries Braille and ASL editions. “The biggest challenge is finding vendors [in North America] in languages and books that fit into our store,” says Kavic, the international book buyer. “There’s a lot of books competing for not a lot of space, so there’s a lot of shifting and reshelving.”
Wild Rumpus accommodates its programming by setting bookshelves and tables on casters so that they can be easily moved during in-store events, which are carefully choreographed to maintain crowd control. The bookstore hosts approximately 125 author appearances annually, as well as more than 150 interactive authorless events that invariably fill the store. Around five in-store book fairs held every year, in partnership with local schools, also draw crowds. For the past two years, the store’s single busiest sales day has been the day of a book fair benefiting Barton Open School, which is located in south Minneapolis.
“It’s a whole school event,” reports assistant book buyer Katie McGinley, who coordinates book fairs, noting that participating schools are encouraged to bring in food and entertainment. “With Barton, the choir performs, or there’s theater. It’s a party. It’s wall-to-wall with families, from 3 to 4 p.m. until we close.”
Due to the limited floor space, ADA accessibility requirements, as well as a commitment to quality control of its displays, Wild Rumpus does not buy big publisher dumps. Instead, Ourada sets up original displays throughout the store—on tables, against walls, and on top of bookshelves—using the contents of a prop closet, in the 800-square-foot basement office area, packed with fabrics, toys, and all sorts of objects, most recycled or repurposed. Ourada describes her philosophy as spotlighting new releases and seasonal titles while “making the store warm and unique,” with displays that “surprise people and are eccentric.”
Running Wild Rumpus, Morgan says, “is like putting on a big play. There’s a lot of theatricality involved.” After all, she adds, “When we started, there was no internet, no world wide web. Now, children are more likely to be entertained using a device, so we try to make reading fun. We want to make children lifelong readers, so that they graduate to those big stores that usually win PW’s award.”
PW wants to thank this year’s juries. Bookstore of the Year judges: Rachel Geiger, Chronicle Books; Tom Hallock, Beacon Press; Ruth Liebmann, Penguin Random House; Tucker Stone, Nobrow/Flying Eye Books; and Karen Torres, Hachette Book Group. Rep of the Year judges: Pam Cady, University Bookstore Inc.; Gillian Kohli, Wellesley Books; Judith Lafitte and Tom Lowenburg, Octavia Books; Michael Link, Joseph-Beth Booksellers; Michael Tucker, Books Inc.